Messy hair

Look Back At It

Zoe Kleinfeld_online

I am sorry to say that this spring break I spent four hours sitting in a chair so that a woman could break up the invisible line that had formed between my natural hair color and the slightly brighter color that emerged at the old root line of my last dye job. I am sorry because my hair looks entirely the same — my opinion, not hers — and the final result was promised to radically reformulate my morale — her opinion, not mine — as a result of all the time I would not have to spend worrying about having nice hair.

What is nice hair? The question is a Rorschach, and no two people will likely answer exactly the same way.

My own experience with hair began when I was 4 years old and told our preschool class historian that I wanted to be a hair decorator when I grew up. I was often exonerated for tardiness by my compulsively punctual preschool teacher as a result of the intricate braids constructed by my nanny. (And was often late as a result of the time it took her to create perfectly symmetrical plaits.) It was special, I learned, to have great hair.

It was so great, in fact, that I eventually adopted drastic measures to maintain its relative presentability. In middle and high school, I would wake up every morning before school to straighten my hair. Because my hair is naturally knotted, and because my hair straightener was the cheapest model from CVS, the entire process took about one and a half hours.

Think of the things I could have been doing in that time! I could have, after four years and two teachers, actually learned how to speak French. I could have become culturally literate — maybe even cool. This is, of course, in retrospect. At the time, I just wished shaved heads would come into fashion.

All of this is to say that I was impressed early on with the notion that presentability could only be rewarded — that there was little merit to personal unkemptness; that it was okay to let large chunks of time be absorbed by superfluous pursuits — if only to stave off dishevel. Hair, in particular, can be a marker of the way that things are at one particular moment; or else, it can be a means to pretend that things are a certain way (“feel good look good”) even if they aren’t. Indeed, hair presents a convincing absence of anxiety; nobody knows how long it takes to make it appear a certain way.

I like to think the lost time was a means to figure out how to navigate the impossible realm between what will always naturally occur and what we strive so hard to make occur. On the one hand, young people are told to embrace the mess of life — that everyone makes mistakes, that what is important is to learn from the ambiguous process involved in erring. On the other hand, we are consistently rewarded for all that we do correctly: getting good grades, getting good jobs, looking presentable enough some of the time. I understand that a number of young people embrace uncertainty and relish in the throes of an unmaintained lifestyle. I am not one of those people, and the hair industry can thank me for it.

I spend a huge amount of time preparing myself to be presentable to other people, according to what I perceive their standards to be. This includes, among other things, curating a pretty resume and pursuing extracurriculars that are convincingly important while ensuring that I look relatively sane in the process. Of course, my experience is not particularly unique. Many people are drawn to the aesthetics of togetherness. But overadherence to external gratification can also limit creative pursuits: It diminishes the ability to be all right with failure; it limits the possibility for error.

Last summer, I dyed my hair blue, and after five months I went back to the salon to have it re-dyed to nonblue; except, it turns out, blue is a terrible color to remove from hair because it works its way deep into the follicle and makes temporality a pipe dream associated with its existence. So, I entered the salon with longish bright blue hair and left with much shorter, slightly greenish-brown tinted hair.

I was upset. I called my friend, who has perfect, golden hair that is straight — but not so straight that it won’t hold a curl.

“My hair is swamp-ish and short,” I said.

“So what?” she said. “It’s hair. It’s not like you did anything special to make it grow, other than exist. Give it time.”

Give it time. Look on the bright side. It could be worse. (I know, it’s just hair.) But it’s still part of the whole package. People — ostensibly, people with nice hair — often say that you learn from mistakes. But the mistakes do stay with you for some time, at least. The cuts take time to grow back; the unintended consequences take time to wash away. It seems that the most important takeaway from a flub is that it’s entirely possible to have another.

Zoe Kleinfeld writes the Wednesday blog on kids these days. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @zkleinfeld.

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